Tuesday 29 November 2011

Bhutan -The Last Shangri-La

Why Bhutan? Answer is 'luxury of time' that you will not experience in any other place. Embracing Gross National Happiness with higher priority than GDP, Bhutan is the one of the best international backpacking trip you can do without a deep hole in the pocket at Rs 1800 for two per day. Bhutan does not welcome backpacker style tourism and any foreign tourist need to pay a fixed $250 per day - includes your stay, transport and food-tour should be through an tour agent. Only Indian and Bangladeshi nationals are permitted to do self organized tour in Bhutan.
Read http://www.bhutannica.org/ to know more about Bhutan.

Day 1- Arrive at Phuentsholing from Siliguri and obtain the permit and stay overnight.
Day 2- Phuentsholing to Paro. Visit Dzong, Stroll around the town.
Day 3 - Taktshang Goemba and nearby monasteries.
Day 4- Paro to Thimphu. Walking tour of Thimphu and Takin Preserve
Day 5 - Pangri Zampa, Dechenphu Lhakhang, Tango and Cherri Goemba
Day 6 - Return to P/ling. 

Permit: Indian nationals don't need a visa, but need to obtain a permit at the border crossing point- Phuentsholing next to the Indian town Jaigaon, West Bengal. New Jalpaigudi (NJP) is the railway station nearest to Jaigaon which is 4hours by road. This permit is only for 7 days and Paro and Thimphu are accessible by this. Route permit for other restricted areas and route extension can be done only at Immigration Office at the capital city - Thimphu. To obtain a permit, you need a photocopy of Indian Govt. ID and address proof (Driving License, Passport, Voter's ID Card) and one passport size photograph. There are no fees for the permit and this will be ready in 30 minutes on a working day until 4pm. This permit will be asked at any hotel you stay and need to be stamped at immigration checkpoints on the way.

Currency: Bhutanese currency Ngultrum (Nu) is pegged at Indian Rupee. Rs is widely accepted in Bhutan except 500 and 1000 notes. Convert your 500/1000 notes at Phuentsholing or before to 100s. There is a Druk PNB (Punjab National Bank) ATM at P/ling and Thimphu. You can withdraw cash from this ATM in Nu from your Indian bank account without any foreign currency conversion charges. But be aware server outages can happen and carry cash enough from P/ling.

Food: Staple diet of Bhutan is beef and pork with rice and meatatarians will have no dilemma. Potato and beans are available at most of the hotels for vegetarians. But if you travel to Central Bhutan, you may be left with only the National food - Ema Datse- two dozen green chilies cooked in cheese. Yes, chilly is the one and only item in this dish.

Train & Bus: From any part of India, you can take a train to NJP in Siliguri city - the corridor to Assam. Direct Bhutan buses start from Burdwan road in Siliguri to Phuentsholing at 7am, 12noon, 2pm. You can also board a bus to Jaigaon or Hasimara from Siliguri bus stand (next to Silguri Railway Station). Take a shared auto from Jaigaon to Phuentsholing border crossing. Start by the first bus if possible so that you reach P/ling before 3pm to get your permit the same day.

Travel in Bhutan: Book your tickets one day in advance as the buses start in the morning. There are fixed bus routes inside Bhutan which are long distance Toyota Coaster buses. Comfortable for a day trip and make sure your backpack is secured on the top carrier of the bus and covered by silpaulin sheet to protect from rain and dust. The first row seat is not recommended as there will be lot of parcels around you. If you have motion sickness, Bhutan is not for you. AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) may hit you above 3000m, so keep yourself hydrated when you travel in Bhutan. The highest mountain pass Cheli La is at 3810m and you will cross many mountain passes at 3400m.

Things to remember: Batteries drain faster at temperatures lower than 15C. Remove the battery and keep close to your body in the night. AMS (Altitude Mountain Sickness) might hit you even at 3000m, keep hydrated and go slow when you are on the hiking trails. Grab a copy of Bhutan Lonely Planet from flipkart.com - knowing the history and traditions of this culturally sensitive country makes your trip more sensible. Carry a hat/sunglass and sunscreen lotion to ward off UV light and scorching sun.


Bangalore to Phuentsholing:
We started on a Friday night from Bangalore by Guwahati express and reached NJP after 48 hours. Relishing dosa at Chennai, biriyani at Vijayawada, rasgulla at Howrah, poori-sabji at Malda apart from the regular IRCTC meals, it was culinary cultural experience through eastern part of the sub-continent travelling 3000 km. Syed sent a box of sweets through his brother at Vijayawada, though he couldn't meet us. Many people consider train journey as a waste of time, but when we get 48 hours to spend reading, sleeping and eating - which is a break from regular routine life, it is utilized to the maximum.
At NJP, Sunday night was spent at Classic Lodge, NJP Main Road (Tel: 0353-2691673, Mob: 98323-15933) dbl Rs 600 after a shameless bargain for a basic but clean room and hot water shower- a cycle rickshaw will take you there for Rs 20. Next morning a shared auto for Rs 15 took us from NJP to the Siliguri Bus Stand. We took 9am bus to Hasimara as there was no bus to Jaigaon before 12noon. Kuttan hailing from my hometown Cherthala and running Madras Restaurant was so friendly that we forgot to pay for the breakfast! After a tough 4 hours and hoping on to a bus from Hasimara to Jaigaon (20minutes) and a shared auto Rs 20 per head, we reached the majestic border gate of Bhutan. Walked straight to the immigration office above the post office, submitted the simple application form with photocopy of the passport and photograph. 30min later, after lunch we collected the permits.

A few Rs 500 was converted from the fellow travelers on the way to Jaigaon and Akilesh at Anil Stores, Phuensum Lam, P/ling was kind enough to convert our Rs 500 notes to Nu 1000. I met him first in 2009 and he remembered me as well. He highly recommended Bumthang but warned that it might be snowing there. He gave me a copy of India Today with a report about King's wedding. After booking the tickets to Paro (Nu 198, 7 hours) at the bus station we checked in at Hotel Gongphyel (Tel: 05251660) dbl Nu650 with nice balconies and basic clean rooms. Relishing a plate of chowmein and local favorite Druk 11000 beer, we slotted into first gear for 10-day expedition of Bhutan.

Western Bhutan namely Paro and Thimphu can be visited in just 5 days. But if you want to explore the less visited Central Bhutan, count two weeks. From P/ling to Paro spending 7hours in the bus will take you altitude of 2800m. We started at 8:30am from P/ling after securing our backpacks on top of the top bus. Carry your essentials in a daypack inside the bus including a fleece jacket as the mercury might dip to single digits at Gedu. You would show your permit at the check post and get it stamped. The bus journey is the classic example of Bhutanese slow pace of life, they stop at vegetable/fruits vendors if you want to procure anything. Bus driver will stop and talk to every acquaintance with no sign of hurry. Lay back and relax, here is life with luxury of time. Peep through the window and enjoy the clouds at your feet, pine and cypress forests, tall electric towers from one mountain to another and many more… The average traffic speed is quite less and drivers don't honk perpetually, though the turns are precarious. We witnessed a truck falling from the ridge crashing the steel fence on the sides. Every vehicle on the way stopped and a few guys went down to help those in the truck.

The airport is in Paro -an idyllic town in the valley. You get a bird's eye view of the airport on the way 15min before the town. We reached Paro by 2pm after lunch stop at Karma Hotel, Bunakha. The roads are a lot better and perpetual landslide will slow down at a few places. Paro seemed crowded and it was cloudy with occasional light drizzle at a nippy 15C. After checking in at Hotel Dragon (Tel: 08272174, Nu800), not the best but available option , we walked along the Paro River enjoying this enchanting town lined up with wooden shops and restaurants at an elevation 2280m. Hotel Peljorling is the best bet for your taste buds but you will not meet many locals here. Paro Dzong which was made famous by the movie 'Little Buddha' should be the first destination if you reach before 5pm. Spending an hour at this exemplary Bhutanese architecture will make you think differently about wheel of life. You can shop for less in Paro compared to Thimphu if you are looking for a souvenir.

Next morning, pre-arranged taxi guy showed up at 7:30 am for obligator y visit to Taktshang Goemba (Tiger's Nest Monastery), named after the legend of Guru Rinpoche flying on the back of a tigress. Pack your lunch if you can and as there is no bus service in Paro, taxi is the only way to reach here, be ready to cough up Nu500 round trip. Precariously perched at rocky cliffs at an elevation of 3180m, this monastery is most famous and expect heavy tourist crowd on the muddy trail. A heavily worn-out gradual trail starts at 2600m from the parking lot will take 1hr 45min for a cardio-fit trekking enthusiast. You will find a exorbitantly priced café after 45min and some might retire at this location which provides a view of the monastery. Hike up through the blue pine forest and streams, at 3140m you will have a spectacular photo-stop of Taktshang. You need 30min to visit the monastery in detail. When we reached back the parking lot, we were surprised to see that our taxi driver did not show up at the stipulated time. After waiting for30min, we got another taxi to return to Paro town. Drukgyel Dzong is another oft-visited place close to Taktshang, but this is not so impressive, except the fact that you will reach the dead end of the road from Paro, you might be lucky to see the snow-capped Jhomolhari mountain.

You can rent bicycles from Paro town at a rate of Nu1500 for day or Nu750 for half-day. Nights can be chilly and mercury will be single digit, pull on your down jacket while strolling outdoors and thermals for sleeping. If you want to experience mountain biking in Bhutan, Paro is a better option than Thimphu when traffic and scenic routes are considered. Thimphu is two hour bus ride, but you don't get after morning service. Book your tickets on the previous day to ensure the availability and front seats. While visiting a local family run restaurant for roti and beans, we got strong recommendation to visit Bumthang. If you have your own vehicle, drive 35km to the highest mountain pass in Bhutan -Cheli La at 3810m.

A bus starting at 9am from Paro will reach Thimphu by 11am. After checking in at Hotel NT on Norzin Lam close to Clock Tower square ( Tel: 77247250- Shekhar) dbl Nu650 with room heater and hot shower. There are many options on Norzin Lam but make sure you check the room and toilets before you sign-up. If you need restricted area permit or route permit extension beyond 7 days, head to Immigration Office at the end of Norzin Lam road past Textile Museum and Duty Free shop with a copy of the permit and passport. After completing the paperwork, you can spend your time at Textile Museum, market, archery ground. A lot of eye-balls and lenses are attracted by the robotic traffic policeman at this capital - only one in the world without traffic lights. For a peaceful place at this busy city, you can head to the tranquil National Memorial Chorten and spin the prayer wheels. There are frequent buses to Motithang. Get down at Youth center and walk 4-5km to reach Takin Preserve - mini zoo which houses the National Animal of Bhuta - a combination of goat and a cow as per the legends. Frost can be found in the morning at Thimphu as early as November first week as the temperature drops to zero in the night.


Shared taxi to Tango and Cherri Goemba at 15km from Thimphu, will cost Nu50 for locals. Haggling with taxi drivers is a pain. Take a bus to Dechencholing and get down at the last stop. Pack your lunch, you will not see any place to eat. Next to the stop is Pangri Zampa. Walk up an hour past the huge tanks and you will reach Dechenphu Lhakhang. Come back to the junction and turn right to Tango and Cherri Goemba. Cross the bridge at Begana and turn left. It will take one hour to walk to the parking lot from D/ling. You might encounter lion tail macaque in this route. Majestic cones of snow at Jomolhari and other peaks are visible. Hiking to Tango and Cherri will take 45min each. Ride a taxi back if you don't have the luxury of time. While waiting for a taxi we talked to Dorji - a student from the monastic school. His friends were going to Pangri Zampa so they offered us a ride. Students spend 6 years at Tango then 3 years at Cherri. Then they spend in meditations for 3 years 3 months and 3days.

Back at Hotel NT, relish Saq datse/ tawa roti with Druk 11000 before returning to Phuentsholing.

Sunday 27 November 2011

Bhutan - Bumthang Valley

Want to smell the stimulative smell of pine forest and see the real Bhutan? Leave Thimphu and Paro and head to Central Bhutan. Power supply is erratic, transportation is bone-rattling. Bumthang is not for the average tourist. Best visited in summer and spring, Bumthang is colder than rest of the country and temperature can be freezing in early November; pack thermals and down jacket for Bumthang elevation at 2580m. Book your tickets to Jakar early as there is only one bus at 7am leaving Thimphu (Nu 312)

Getting up at 5am to board a bus to Jakar in Bumthang valley was more than exciting. At 6am, Thimphu bus station was crowded with travelers and vendors. I tried Thuppa which looked like rice porridge, the vendor was happy to see a 'tourist' trying out local food. Bus started at7am, switched back roads passing 108 chortens at Dochu La, Metshina, Punakha valley and Wangdue Phodrang. We reached Pele La at 3420m and there was snow all around! Phobjika Valley - legendary for black necked cranes, the glacial valley at Black Mountains slopes is a detour from PeleLa. You will see a few yaks gazing on the road side in this area. Bomilo is the only place where the bus will stop for lunch. Be ready to eat Bhutanese food- pork or ema datse for vegetarians. Ema datse here is more hot than the mild version that you get at Thimphu and Paro. Enjoying the mountain views of Black Mountains, we reached Trongsa by 3:30pm. Crossing Yotong La at 3425m, we reached Jakar after 12hours of tough ride at 7pm. Jakar was in pitch dark with no power supply.

Power supply is erratic in Central Bhutan and there might be no power for long hours, be prepared with flashlight and candles. Bhutan's export of 'excess' power to India is an overplayed slogan as half of the country is still not lucky to have electricity. This small town famous for Red Panda beer sleeps at 7pm and wakes up very late in the morning. Grab your dinner before 7pm if you are not eating at your hotel. There are a few cheapies in the town with shared bathrooms at Rs 300-500/-and mostly crowded by the Indian workers.

We checked in at Kaila Guest House(Tel:03-631219 std Nu 1500/- plus 10% tax) which is the nearest to the bus stop. This large hotel is a good place with cozy rooms and a restaurant with a bukhari-a stove made of metal with firewood as fuel. Request at the reception for the attendant who will come with a little kerosene to start the fire. Bukhari heats up the room pretty fast but don't stay for long, so get under the blanket if you are cold while the fire is up. Kuenzang at Kaila was delighted to see us from Bangalore as he spent 3 years in Bangalore doing his graduation in hotel management. Restaurant serves good though bland food catering to foreign taste buds, buffet dinner Nu 250. If you want to try out the local buckwheat noodles and Red Panda Weiss Beer with a tint of local conversations, explore any small restaurant in the town.

Squinting to the sunlight at 6am, we got ready to hike up the Pelseling Goemba. Crossing the bridge on the east side of the town climb up concrete steps to reach Namkhe Nyingpo Goemba. From here it is 3hours steep hiking up to Pelseling Goemba. There is a short cut used by cattle herds crossing two streams. Pack your lunch and spend enough time to catch up with breath on this rewarding hike through cypress and needle pine forests. After descending to Swiss Guest House, we stopped at Bumthang Brewery and met the Swiss Fritz Maurer who started this micro-brewery way back in 1980s. He introduced cheese-making, farming machinery, wood stoves apart from brewing. When you get a bottle from any shop in the town, be sure to check the expiry date of Red Panda beer as it doesn't contain any preservative and not filtered.

Next day, we moved to a cheaper accommodation -a family run guest house- Phuentsho Guest House (Nu 850 shared bathroom, Tel 03631432, mob 17670376/17578216) for a basic room with a bukhari. They have 8 rooms and another guest house is under construction. The daughter of the family did her hotel management course from Bangalore. We met Mr. Karma and Mr. Tandin who work in Ministry of Home and  Cultural Affairs. Both of them hail from Eastern Bhutan where the local language Sharchop is different from Dzongkha spoken at rest of the country. They were on duty visiting some of the Dzongs and monasteries.

We arranged a taxi to go around the western side of the Chokhor valley visiting Jampey Lakhang, Chakhar Lakhang, Khurjey Lakhang and Wangdi Choling Palace. Most of the religious places were thronged by Pundarika Pilgrimage group. Round trip cost was Nu 450. Back at Phuentsho Guest House we met with a few Americans hailing from Hawaii and working in Saudi Arabia. After lunch, Tandin and Karma offered us a ride to Tang Valley to visit the Burning Lake -known for Pema Lingpa's legend of jumping into the lake with a burning lamp. After 20km of rough ride from Jakar town, you will be at Membartsho where Burning Lake is a few minutes walk from the parking lot. Later in the evening Tandin and Karma conversed about cultural and historical aspects of Bhutan and acknowledged times are changing to modernization. Tandin offered a free call to Shekar to book a room at Hotel NT, Thimphu.

The bus back to Thimphu started at 7am and the snow capped peaks of Black Mountains were visible throughout the trip from Yotong La to Dochu La. The best views are between Trongsa to Wangdi. We reached Thimphu faster in 10hours. Next visit to Bhutan, we will concentrate on Central and Eastern Bhutan- Mongar and Trashigang. Exiting to India Samdrup Jongkhar is easier than going back all the way to Thimphu. Road less travelled always offer you more, if you are prepared!

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Munnar- the mystical mountains

Ask any Malayalee (Keralite) which part of the state is most pretty and they will pronounce 'Munnar'. Comprising of the wild and dense forests sprawling into Tamil Nadu,dramatic green tea plantations, spice plantations conquering the roads, vast lakes and soaring mountains- Munnar's landscape is mind-blogging. Rain or shine, being the most sought-after tourist destination of Keralites and foreigners, Munnar is packed through the year. At 1524m altitude, this air-conditioned hill station is a relief for the people from the hot and humid lowlands of South India. Known as 'High Range' in Kerala, Munnar is today the commercial hub of tea-growing estates, notably Tata's Kannan Devan Hills Plantations.

Note: This trip is for the backpackers using mass transport and covers the not so often visited places. If you are looking for creature comforts seeking resort holidays, you are at the wrong place.

In the month of August, it is raining unstoppably in Kerala like never before. Dropping the idea of riding RX100 motorcycle to Munnar, Megha and I boarded an early morning 5am bus from Cherthala to Munnar on 31st Aug for a 5-day trip. This 'Super Fast' KSRTC bus will go through Ernakulam-Aluva-Kothamangalam-Adimali and reach Munnar in 5 hours. To reach Munnar from Bangalore, Coimbatore-Udumalpet-Marayoor route is shorter. We met Susanne from Germany in the bus and Megha was excited to chat with her in German. The route to Munnar gets very scenic after Neriyamangalam bridge and the winding roads start. We had to witness a Mahindra Bolero hard-braking which toppled and drifted almost 20m on the road- no causalities. The numerous waterfalls were in their full swing, thanks to the rains. Cheeyappara was the most magnificent among those.

After reaching Munnar at 10am, we settled at Green View home stay near Sree Parvathy Amman Kovil very close to the KSRTC bus station. Deepak and his friendly staff provide you basic amenities at Rs 500/- for a double room with hot water and TV. Phone: 04865-2330940, 230189 Mob: 094478 25447 www.greenviewmunnar.com. They offer you excellent trek options suiting your fitness and risk appetite -www.munnartrekking.com. We could not use their expertise in the next five days as it was drizzling perpetually. DTPC office is very nearby and if you want to explore Munnar on a guided tour, this is a good option at Rs 300 per seat. Contact 04865- 231516 (9am-7pm) and booking your seat in advance is recommended as they have a 12 seat mini-bus. If you are looking for a better place with restaurant away from town Chithirapuram Resorts, Munnar-Anachal Road is a good option. Phone: +91-4865263255 Mob: +91-9446005519 Tariff starts from Rs 1000.

Temperature was between 15 degree Celsius to 24 on the higher scale. It was drizzling day and night which dipped the mercury even further. Wind was not strong but occasional breeze made our chins shivering. At an altitude range of 5000-8000ft, Munnar has something to offer despite I had been there more than a dozen times. There are three routes local buses ply from Munnar apart from the Munnar -Cochin route. For each route there is a different bus stop in the town. Each route requires a day for a return trip.

Route 1: Eravikulam-Lukkom - Marayoor - Chinnar -Udumalpet-Coimbatore or Marayoor-Kanthalloor

Route 2: Devikulam-Pooppara-Theni or Pooppara-Nedumkandam-Kumily

Route 3: Mattupetty-Top Station - Koviloor

We walked to Munnar town and tested the culinary skills of Saravana Bhavan at the center of town. We spotted 'Sangamam' private bus which leaves at 2pm from Munnar to Kanthalloor - the last stop -via Marayoor, 80km (2hours) away, ticket costs Rs 45. The front seat of the bus left to the driver provided impressive view of the tea plantations and waterfalls. After Marayoor, this route goes through rice paddy fields and sugarcane fields bordered by rain-soaked mountains. You will see many huts with smoking chimneys where jaggery is prepared in huge vessels. Marayoor - famous for jaggery- is a small town and Kanthalloor is 15km from here. Heavily guarded sandalwood forests of Marayoor is famous but it is not something to see or smell. At 1455m(4800ft) Kanthalloor is a tranquil village you can explore on foot, there are not much of civic amenities here sans a few home stays and shops. Marayoor has lots of shopping options -honey, lemon grass, jaggery etc and also provide basic accommodations. TVJ Hotel -04865 252853 has s/d/dorm. The driver and conductor in the 'Sangamam' bus were friendly and explained about the jaggery industry and sandalwood forests. We were back in Munnar town by 6:30pm. Realizing the fact that shoes are not a good option, we bought a pair of slippers for the next 4 days.

Next day, we travelled to Chinnar Wild Life Sanctuary, 60km northeast of Munnar, 10km past Marayoor. Any bus heading to Coimbatore or Udumalpet will drop you there- mostly KSRTC and Tamil Nadu buses ply in this route. This rain shadowed forest boasts of elephants, deers, leopards and the endangered grizzled giant squirrel. Forest Information Center will arrange treks for Rs 100 per head to Thoovanam waterfalls. This was the first time we were trekking wearing slippers and when in doubt about the slippery rocks, I was on barefoot as it provided better grip. We could reach the waterfalls in 45min at the same pace as our guide Raju- he is from the tribal clan living at the nearby tribal settlement. He was picking up the plastic bottles dumped by the urban citizens as he was aware of the damage it might cause to the forest and wild animals. Crossing many streams and elephant dung, we reached a shallow river. Raju declared us lucky as this river could be deeper making it impossible to reach the waterfalls. He had many wild animal encounter stories to narrate in a mix of Malayalam and Tamil. Watching the humongous waterfalls with cold water sprayed onto face was an enthralling experience. Returning through another route, we could see more jungle trails which required us to squat and leap. We were back to the WLS office and hot black tea and sweet peanut were available at the tiny shop. You can stay inside the forest on tree top wood houses for Rs 1500 per head including food, not for the faint hearted. Contact 04865 -231587 for booking.

Day 3 -was a shorter day as we were waiting to see if the rains will come to a halt until 9am. If it was a sunny day, we could have gone on a trek to 2400m(7920ft) which would be the highest altitude trek in India sans The Himalayas. Rain Gods were not kind and we were at the bus stop next to Jeep Stand in the Munnar town boarding a bus to Koviloor- the remote village at Kerala -Tamil Nadu border, bus ticket costs Rs 43. This is most visited route for 'sight-seeing' by tourists. The bus driver stopped a few minutes when he saw a herd of wild elephants on the left side of the road next to the lake. Driving past Mattupetty Dam, Echo Point and Top Station this route takes you to Pampadum Shola WLS. Contact the Forest Office for a day trek in Pambadum Shola paying Rs 195 per head. You can also stay in tents overnight inside the forest. Contact Forest Guard Manoj at 09446836712 for arranging this. There used to be a road from here to Kodaikanal which is closed to preserve wild life. The 10km road from Pamadum Shola to Koviloor is through one of the most dense forest in Western Ghats. Koviloor is famous for carrots and you will see many industrial machines to clean the carrots and pack to jute sacks. We walked back from Koviloor to Top Station enjoying the scenic views and light drizzling. After steaming rice/sambar lunch at a tiny restaurant we did the obligatory walk to the Top Station view point and later in the evening we boarded a returning jeep to Munnar town.

Day 4- Munnar-Kumily route via Devikulam-Pooppara-Udumbanchola-Mayiladumpara-Nedumkandam was our choice. This is another jaw-dropping experience as you will go through tea plantations, spice gardens, edge of the seat thrilling half-lane roads next to the cliffs, waterfalls and jungles with scanty daylight. We boarded 9:30am Tamil Nadu bus to Theni and bought tickets to Pooppara-Rs 28 per seat. Theni/Madurai bound buses take a diversion from Pooppara. Another route from Pooppara goes to Adimali via Rajakkad, Anachal, Rajakumari etc. The way the driver tackled the hair pin bends was precarious - sometimes the front of the bus was out of the road in the air above the tea plantations. You can never underestimate the loss of friction due to rain and mud -we had seen a few toppled vehicles on the way. After reaching Pooppara, we took a Kerala private bus to Nedumkandam. The 'High Range' of Kerala offers excellent experience - cardamom, ginger and many more spices overgrow onto the road and you will not find symbols of modern civilization- just lush green. After lunch at 'Hotel Yuvaraj' Nedumkandam, we boarded a 2pm bus back to Pooppara and then KSRTC bus to Munnar. Megha was fascinated at the string and bell system with a spring in the private bus which sounded unique while taking reverse. We were back in town by 5pm. By this time we were friends with the guys who run the small restaurant where we had our breakfast and dinner regularly. I was happy when they complimented about my Tamil- at least one Indian language I am good at other than my mother tongue.

Day 5- We decided to walk the first half of the day. After reading about the 12km DIY trek in Lonely Planet guidebook, we headed to the bridge named after Sir C.P Ramaswamy and crossed this bridge walking towards Pothanmedu viewpoint. Megha was excited to splash the poodle of water on the road. The road down from there was deserted and found none to ask for directions. After walking for two hours, we were lost and found ourselves in the midst of a tea plantations with a few cows grazing around us. Two of the plantation workers were our rescue team and gave us clear directions to walk to Attukadu waterfalls. They asked us to walk across the tea estates to save time instead of the long and winding route. You may get stopped in this route by locals as this trek route goes through private properties. Ask for permission before entering tea estates. We reached the deserted hospital in the village. After a while, we got a jeep heading back to Munnar town with 16 people - better than the auto rickshaw with 8 people. Megha was a victim of leech bite and turmeric was handy to stop the bleeding. By 12noon we bid adieu to Deepak and Prabhakar promising to return in December for a mountain trek. For Rs 5000 for five days for two, it was the most value for money trip we have done.

Friday 19 August 2011

Kabbaladurga - Night Trek

70km from Bangalore and 20km from Kanakapura, Kabbaladurga is visited by devotees during day to worship at the temple on top. This monolithic rocky mountain is precipitous at a height of 980m (3234ft) overlooking the village and a few other mountains nearby. To find the route to this sleepy village where you will spot a cattle shed in front of every house, turn right from Kanakapura main road where the left turn takes you to Muthathi. Kabbaladurga temple is famous among the locals and you can use the Indian GPS ( stop and ask anyone on the road).

Bangalore Mountaineering Club was organizing a night trek to Kabbaladurga peak on Aug 6th, thanks to Saurav for forwarding this information. There were two other colleagues from GE who joined in this trek, the total headcount was 14. They charge Rs 800 per head and includes transport, breakfast, sleeping bags. You can find more details of such treks and long weekend trips - http://www.bmcindia.org/

On Saturday night, we headed to the pick-up point near Lifestyle showroom on Richmond road. There were a few other waiting for the bus that starts from Wind Tunnel Road. I was pleasantly surprised at the number of girls who turned up for a trek. Krishna from BMC and others picked us and the vehicle was heading to Kanakapura through the torn apart roads by Namma Metro project. We reached the base at 12midnight and it was a half-moon night. Krishna briefed us about the plans and gave us our sleeping bags to carry with us. Megha and I realized that we forgot to pack our torch (such an insult) and it was going to be a tough job to hike up without a torch. Plan was to reach the top in two hours and stay (sleep) until 6am and descend. The group reached the first steep ascent and everyone was sleepy and gasping for breath. Following Yogesh's torch light, we were leading the group mostly. Whenever we were doubtful about the route further, we used to wait for Krishna.

The climb is very steep and there is no clear path to provide grip. The locals have carved a few tiny steps just enough to place half of your foot on the most precariously steep rocks. There are electric poles on the way and you need to watch those cables while climbing up. Sometimes using all your legs and hands and climbing up like a monkey is recommended. Try to avoid the slippery parts of the rock where the water sweeps down as it provides no friction. Without a torch light it was too dangerous to take any step.

In two hours with a few breaks gulping water and waiting for others we reached the peak by 2am. It was drizzling a bit and rain cuts were handy. The peak was very cold and mercury levels were reading 14 degree Celsius. Moreover the wind was very strong and you would feel you will fly off if you don't hold to something. Megha was so excited as she was the first one to reach even before me. Once Krishna reached the peak with the tail end at 3am, he walked around the bushes to collect firewood to set a campfire. We were walking on the edges of the mountain through fog and it was a wonderful experience. Krishna asked if anyone smoked in the group and Saurav was running to him thinking Krishna is offering a cigarette. Krishna was asking for a matchbox or lighter. I was glad to find that none of the group members were into smoking.

Lighting up the fire was another Herculean task and none had a lighter or matchstick except a girl who had kept it for lighting up a few candles for her friend's birthday. Krishna, with the help of others trying out paper, plastic, dry grass etc lit up a the firewood and that provided a cozy warm feeling amidst the thick fog and wind. Then he started the 'Mafia' game which put a few of us to sleep and other s to continue the game until day break. The wind gathered more momentum and I felt I would be flying with the sleeping bag. Luckily it was not raining, we were sleeping on the rocks without a tent. Packing myself maximum into the comfort of the sleeping bag I slept until 6am and morning rush to watch the clouds floating woke me up. It was heaven on earth!!! You will feel like floating along with those cotton like clouds…

Reality struck me when Krishna asked us to pack up the sleeping bags and start descending. Descent was even more difficult as at many parts of the trek you will have to descend vertically without any grip or anything to hold. Sitting and sliding down on your bums is the easiest way to tackle this and always remember to lean against the rock instead of the air which can't support your heavy body. In 45 min, against the expected 2 hrs we reached the base. After freshening up we waited for others while trying to catch up with a power nap inside the vehicle. By 9:30 am we were in Kanakapura munching a much rewarding breakfast and we were home by 11am. Looking forward to more such organized treks by BMC.

Saturday 6 August 2011

Skandagiri- neighbor of Nandi Hills



If you have been to Nandi Hills, you must have seen an equally tall rocky mountain towards the northwest of Nandi Hills. Skandagiri, 4500ft (1364m) tall stands majestic with no motorable roads to its peak. If you are a human being with medium fitness, you can reach the peak without much exertion in 2-3 hours. Skandagiri is best climbed in the evening if you are prepared to stay overnight. A tent, sleeping bag and food supplies are necessary to spend your night on the top and watch the magnificent sunrise with the clouds below your feet. You might be surprised to see vendors selling you firewood, noodles, eggs and bread on top of Skandagiri on a full moon night and don't be surprised if you are welcomed by hundreds of trekkers who reached before you to spend the night on the sprawling peak of Skandagiri.

Megha and I decided to visit Nandi Hills and Skandagiri on a Saturday morning. After tackling choc-a-bloc Bangalore traffic and riding past BIAL airport, we reached the left turn to Nandi Hills at 10am. Welcomed by farmers selling grapes along this road and amused at the residential projects by Prestige estates, we reached a T junction. Take a left turn and you will head to Nandi Hills. Instead turn right and drive until you reach another T-junction near ancient Bhoganandeeshwara temple. A left turn and head to Muddenahalli - birthplace of visionary Sir M. S. Visweshwarayya whose architectural works of art consist of Vidhana Soudha and Brindavan Gardens. You can not miss the obvious sign board to take the left turn to this tiny village. Passing a school, we reached another junction with a few shops and we had a sumptuous breakfast for meager Rs 18 - 4 idlis, 2 dal vada, 1 tea. Turn right at this junction and drive another 2km, you will reach the base of Skandagiri. Make sure you don't park your vehicle in a private plot. Sometimes, you will bump against guides offering their help for Rs 100 or so, which may not be a big help unless you are trekking in the night.

 On a pleasant cloudy morning with occassional drizzling, we were in high spirits to ignore Skandagiri and to try to climb another rocky mountain next to Skandagiri. This mountain did not have a clear trekking route and half-way we decided to surrender and come down to the base. There was a vendor who gave us timely energy with salt/chilies spreaded cucumber slices. She asked for biscuits or chocolates, but all we had were oranges and she was more than happy to grab two of them. The climb to the peak is not so easy but you will not run out of breath if you go at a constant pace. There are no vertical climbing phases which test your cardio fitness. Breath-taking light and shade views of the green mountains to the east side and well-laid rectangular paddy fields to the west side will make you stop and look through your lens or binoculars to capture those spectacular view.

Some parts of this trek are through 10 feet high bushes and this will give you a feel of walking through a dense forest with scanty sunlight. The last 30 min is quiet steep and you will think every 10min that you have reached the peak. On the peak, there is a stone structure which provides shelter to the vendors from rains and winds. We could reach the peak in 90min, the temperature at the peak was 17C, lower than 10 compared to the base, thanks to the breeze and thick clouds. After being on the top munching lunch and resting, we started our descent. The knee-trembling descent was not faster and took 90min to reach the parking. On the way, a very old man asked for food and we gave him the last two oranges left with us.


After tea and biscuit, we headed to Nandi Hills to reach there before 6pm, the ticket counter closes. The sunset was not seen as the clouds were dark and thick blanketing the sun but provided some magnificent views of crepuscular rays. It was chilly weather there but the tranquility is spoiled by the crowd and rush of vehicles.At Nandi Hills, you can stay at Nehru Nilaya, the Horticultural Guest House (08156-250901, r Rs 350-1500) with a restaurant. But if you have a group of friends and camping gear, staying on top of Skandagiri can not be compared. On the way back, we did the obligatory purchase of farm fresh grapes from a small boy for Rs 45/kg. For a day's outing Skandagiri and surrounding village offers a lot to see. Around October, you will find silk farming on the road sides and it is amusing to watch those silk worms and cocoons.

Wednesday 20 July 2011

4WD Army Jeep from Chennai to Cochin

This road trip was done in July 2010 while I was working with HDFC Bank at Cherthala -my hometown. I took two days leave, after visiting Deepak at Palarivattom,  boarded a KSRTC bus to Coimbatore from Cochin to attend a friend's wedding reception. I spotted this Mahindra 4WD 550 jeep custom built for Indian Army and Rexy, a friend from college days who used to participate in bike races in and around Kerala with this Suzuki Shogun and Yamaha RX135. I couldn't help jumping off from the KSRTC bus at the next speed breaker and join Rexy to Chennai. My plan was to get down at Coimbatore but I fell in love with this 4WD which was auctioned later to scrap dealers at Chennai and decided to go along with Rexy to pick another jeep from Chennai. On the way to Coimbatore we had to stop at a workshop to change the canvas inside the wheel cup since the front wheels were wobling too much. Well prepared for this, Rexy had all the tools and spares for any kind of breakdown, including two spare wheels, foot pump, two hydraulic jacks, bearings, belts etc...a mini workshop and spare parts shop for a jeep.

We reached Coimbatore at 10pm and met my friend and wife, they were relatively free as there were not many relatives left out and I could chat with him for 15min though I missed out on the vegetarian dishes and good looking Tambhram girls. After a while we continued our journey to Chennai. After another 100km, both Rexy and Nasar were tired and they slept for a while parking on the roadside near a toll plaza. I rang up Nithin and briefed him about my whereabouts, I took shelter under a truck while there was a light shower. We reached Chennai next day morning 10am and went straight to the scrap dealer's yard.

Numerous vehicles from Army at this yard amused me. Shaktiman trucks, Suzuki Gypsy, Mahindra Jeep, Armada - you name any off road vehicle, you will find at least one here. These vechicles come with 98B XXX registration numbers for army. 10 years or later these vechicles will be auctioned as scrap. The dealer will get them to his yard and get an RC book in his name, pay road tax, get insurance etc. Rexy and similar automobile crazy guys will come to this yard and pick one or two vehicles at a price. Later this Jeep or Gypsy will be repaired and repainted with a new life and roll the wheels on road or an estate where 4WD is essential. We started fixing the four wheels so that we can tow the jeep back to Cochin, 700 km. We changed the bearings, lubricated the rolling parts and ensured there is enough air in the tires. Everything seemed fine and relaxing, by evening we retired from the yard unwinding after a night out on NationalHighway. Got recharged and start our journey at 8am on Sunday -at least that is what we planned for next day.

Sunday morning- after a high calorie berakfast, we were all set to start our 700km towing trip. Both old and new jeeps were wed-locked using an A-shaped connecting rod and bolted using U-shaped clamps. The jeep behind our jeep will turn and break as we steer and stop the one in front. Driving is not as easy as driving a single jeep since there will be force to either sides or forward when we take a turn or apply brakes. When we are about to reach Krishnagiri, we found that left front tire is wearing out than normal and the tire surface was abnormally hot. The root cause was not identified so we tried a different configuration for the tires keeping another tire at the left front. While we were changing tires from one side to another, I met Oswin on the road - they were coming back from Trissur to Bangalore. We continued with the new configuration towards Salem. It was found that the new tire is completely worn out in less than 20km! It was clear the tire will not last our next 500+ km. We tried a brand new tire which is expected to run 20000km and tried our luck. It was 10pm and we reached Bhavani, half asleep. The tire was 80% worn out and it would not last another 400km to Cochin from Bhavani. After parking the jeep on the roadside, we slept through the night. Searching for another tire next morning  did not go bad. Tata 207 tire which should be lasting at least 500km was found at Erode. 30hours are over since we started from Chennai and still more than half the distance to go. I got my mobile battery charged from a nearby shop and kept updating Facebook about my trip with pictures.

Finally after various diagnosis and trial and error methods, Rexy found that the driving shafts were jammed at the left front side which was a hindrance for the tire to freely rotate at the turns. It was fixed in 5 minutes with a hammer! We lost 24hours and two tires already!! Anyhow, enjoying the slight drizzle and the cool weather, we drove on NH47 towards Coimbatore. By 2am we reached Angamaly where the workshop is just 10km away. I parted my way with the army jeep and took a KSRTC bus to Cherthala and reached home at 4am. No air conditioner but that was the coolest trip I ever did on road. No mobile car charger - but we were fully charged throughout. 

I am not sure Rexy is doing the jeep refurbishing now. You can contact him at Kalamassery very close of Cochin University  campus; he has a shop named Twinkle.

Perseverance is the key in this mission-completed in 4 days and costing a few tires!!

Sunday 17 July 2011

Honeymoon in Honey Valley





Rains!! The clattering of rain drops on top of the mangalore tiled roof at my grandmother's home always urged me to get out and drench in the rains. So when I called up Suresh Chengappa asking for accommodation for two, he could not detriment my desire to trek in rains. Once I told him that I hail from Alleppey, he knew I am born and brought up in rains. When I was a baby, my grandmother used to give me bath and she never used to dry my head completely so that I develop immunity to get drenched in rains.

After shutting down the laptops and corporate life, I was home at 7pm on last Friday evening. Megha had packed all the bags and kept the essentials ready- Jyothi Laboratories' MAXO insect-repellent cream as active safety against blood-sucking leeches and turmeric powder as the passive safety once they bite you- are the top priority apart from the usual first aid kit. We also packed two John's umbrellas of 545mm width -imported from Kerala and light weight rain cuts from Decathlon. KSRTC runs volvo buses to Virajpet starting from Majestic at 11:30pm and the ticket costs Rs 400 per head. I was impressed by the fact that we can board any BMTC bus to Majestic free of cost if we are taking a KSRTC bus from there. Our bus started at 11:40pm and the route was Bangalore-Kengeri-Mysore-Gonikoppal-Virajpet. At 5.30am on Saturday morning, we were at Virajpet.

The sleepy town of Virajpet was just waking up to their daily chores sans a few newspaper vendors and auto rickshaws. We walked towards the Private Bus stand around 1.5km away. On the way, I picked up a Malayala Manorama and so excited to read it after a long time. Megha and I debated if Malayalam or Kannada has jilebi look alike script. We pit stopped enroute to have a tea at a 'chayakada' and I was cross-questioned by a police man on why I was taking his picture. I was not. I was taking the picture of the bus stand with the fog in the background. Once I showed him the picture, he was ok. The linguistic advantage in Kodagu region is that you can speak either Malayalam or Kannada. Mix up both and you speak something which is close to the local language.

The private bus 'Ganga' started at 6:50am after its morning ablutions -changing the tires and radiator check up. After 45min ride through the winding roads, we reached the destination -Kabbinakadu junction. Even if you are coming in you own vehicle, you need to park it at a nearby parking lot and board the 4-wheel drive jeep from Honey Valley estate, as the last 4km to the home stay is accessible by a 20 minute 4WD jeep ride or by walking for one hour. This ride was one of the bonus as Ganesh tackled the muddy and slippery jeep track by shifting through the 4WD gears. This reminded me of my trip from Chennai to Cochin towing a military jeep using another 4WD jeep through national highway.

Honey Valley is not a resort- it is run by Mr.Suresh Chengppa and his wife who settled here 28 years back. They have a sprawling coffee estate and you can stay in one of the rooms or huts catering to different budgets. Food is with a fixed vegetarian menu and if you are a carnivore, order in advance and those dishes will be served at your dining table.

Honey Valley has it's own hydro-electric turbine for electricity and bio-gas plant for cooking. Heating water for shower is done by solar and firewood. Many European backpackers come and enjoy the lush greenery and rains as Honey Valley is listed in Lonely Planet and other travel guides. Mr. Suresh is well-read and spoke Malayalam, Kannada, Hindi and English fluently. He has a vast collection of fiction and non-fiction books apart from National Geographic magazines. His calmness and grey hair spoke about his eventful past life and I was impressed at his 'been there done that' attitude. His son is currently travelling around the country and he called home from Kashmir two days back.

Route: Bangalore-Srirangapatna-Hunsur, Virajpet-Kabbinakad -235km; By bus: Bangalore-Virajpet (6hrs) Rs 500, Virajpet-Kabbinakau (45min) Rs 18.

Accommodation: The basic double rooms with shared toilets Rs 350, Double rooms with attached bathroom and geyser Rs 800, 4-bed room Rs 1200. Contact: 0822-238339, 200325, Email: honeyvalley_2000@yahoo.com, http://www.honeyvalleyindia.in/

After a sumptuous breakfast and piping hot coffee made out of freshly grounded coffee powder, we walked to a nearby waterfall taking directions from Mr. Suresh. A friendly dog was guiding us to the waterfall and you will hear other friendly dogs barking when you walk near the fenced boundaries of the coffee estates. After a relaxed 15min walk, we were at the bottom of a 25-feet waterfall with magnificent cascades hidden in the forest. It was not another crowded waterfall with drunk semi-nude men, but peaceful and calm where you can spend hours reflecting on life. We were back around lunch time and on the way back, I was attacked by 3 leeches. The insect-repellent was washed off my feet while walking in water. MAXO was very handy to get rid of the leech and applied turmeric powder at the bites to help blood clotting and as an antiseptic. After lunch, the rains gathered strength and we spent the afternoon gazing at the rains and listening to the clattering of heavy downpour on the Mangalore tiles.

In the evening, sipping hot coffee we discussed our plans to hike Mount Thadiyandamol (1745m) with Mr. Suresh. He was really happy gathering our interest in hiking and he gave me a booklet he had prepared with detailed map and directions for 18 hikes starting from Honey Valley ranging from 2 hours to full-day. We wrote down the whole route to Mt. Thadiyandamol but still I asked him for a guide if available. He was not sure of getting one the next morning, as the tribal people are not greedy and if they have the bread for the day, they did not care to work for tomorrow. Though it sounded very philosophical, I was convinced next day as our guide vanished after showing up in the morning.

After breakfast we started around 10am picking up a picnic bag with bread, cucumber, tomato, jam etc. We reached the "Dry Pond junction" which is the starting point to all the trails and this tiny pond was filled with rainwater. From this point, we had a little confusion about the path towards Mt. Thadiyandamol. Anyhow, we started hiking through the most tranquil and scenic path expecting that it would lead us to the peak. Listening to the numerous crickets and frogs, we walked for almost two hours. Crossed multiple streams skirting the mountain on our left side and making our path through the dense forest and thickets of wild hibiscus. After a while, we could not find any obvious path but could see Thadiyandamol peak and walked towards that by wading through knee length grass and bruising our legs and shoulders against the thorny bushes. It was really adventurous to walk through a path that was not listed in the booklet of 18 trails and both of us were thrilled at the 'Man Vs Wild' episode in our honeymoon trek. Whenever I was confused with my instincts I asked Megha to take the lead.

Suddenly Megha stopped and cried out as something bit her, I was horrified if that is a slither. She pulled out an insect from the ankle in a frantic reflex which looked like a leech but was different in texture and size. Blood started flowing without any indications of clotting. I pulled out the antiseptic wipes and cleared the tiny wound and applied turmeric powder. It did not show any relief and there was a sign of poking pain on her face. Iodine ointment was my next remedy, though in vain. Using a band-aid I tried to cover the wound and we decided to get back. As I write this after 5 days, still a tiny swelling is visible and it is paining slightly. Anyhow, we could not find a viable route to go further and it was just enough time to get back for lunch at Honey Valley. Definitely it was more fun to be in a off-beaten trail than going in a routine trail with a crowd polluting the trails with plastic garbage.

Mr. Suresh was surprised that we lost our way and returned. But he was encouraging and exclaimed 'it is not about the destination; it is the hike that is thrilling'. During lunch, we met a few French travelers and discussed about Catacombs under Paris and Decathlon products at length. Post lunch, we moved to a double room with a common toilet and the verandah was occupied by two ladies - one from Spain and the other from Russia. More backpackers were present in this building and one guy from Delhi was visiting this part of the country to study about frogs as part of his research. Enjoying the rains and a few cups of coffee, we spent our evening. By 7.30pm Mr.Suresh dropped us back to Kabbinakkadu junction. The last bus from Madikeri to Virajpet arrived at 8.20pm and we were at Virajpet by 9.15pm. Our Bangalore Airavat bus was at 10:45 and after dinner, we waited at the bus station. After a short sleep of 5 hours, we were at Majestic bus station at 4.00am. Back to concrete jungle and the only noise is that of harsh horns and screeching brakes not crickets and frogs. If you love rains and lush greenery, Honey Valley estate is the place to head to on any weekend.

Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity but in doing it.

Thursday 5 May 2011

A weekend in Alappuzha

Alappuzha (Alleppey) is known as Venice of the East, with its planned canals - the doorway to the famous backwaters. What can be done in Alappuzha over a weekend? Here are a few things I can think of in this well-planned town, a tribute to Raja Kesavadasan's visionary architecture. The most common touristy attraction is the houseboat cruise. You check in to a larger than average apartment sized houseboat and stay for 23hours. Typically you can check-in on Saturday morning 10 am and check-out by Sunday morning 9 am. While you enjoy your lunch, evening tea, dinner and Sunday morning breakfast, don't forget to carry a book or movie DVD. The houseboats start from 'Finishing Point' named after the legendary Nehru Trophy Boat Race. Finishing Point is 10min walk from the Alappuzha KSRTC bus stand, you need to take a newly-built bridge across the canals or Rs 20 by auto-rickshaw. If you are reaching by a train, you can hire an auto-rickshaw to Finishing Point by paying Rs 40 from the train station, 4km southwest of the town center.

There are more than 1000 houseboats in the 900km network of backwaters across the farmlands in Alappuzha and neighboring districts of Kottayam and Kollam. Long before the network of the roads were built, these canals were the main transport channels and even today some of the far inlands are connected by KSRTC boats than buses. The houseboats are the biggest tourist business in Alappuzha post the former prime minister A.B Vajpayee's famous vacation in Kerala. There are differently sized houseboats suitable for any number of people- up to seven bedroom boats are available. When you reach Alappuzha town, you will be surrounded by many travel-agency reps offering houseboat trips. Contrary to the popular belief, it is not possible to travel by houseboat between Alappuzha and Kollam or Alappuzha and Kochi. The quality of the food and infrastructure varies broadly- from old sinking vessels to palatial ships. It is strongly recommended to check your boat before agreeing for a price, make sure the toilet taps and air-conditioner are working fine.




For a couple, one bed room house boat will cost approx Rs 4500 to Rs 7000 for 23hours. The houseboats will be parked by 5pm in the evening next to the farmlands fringed by coconut trees in the far interior backwaters and coming out of the houseboat and going to the town or beach is not practical. If you want to reduce the cost, but experience the houseboat there is an alternative package. You can check- in the night around 8pm and stay overnight in the boat until 9am. This will cost Rs 3000 for two -dinner and breakfast are included. There will be two staff on board- a driver and a chef to cook the food of your choice. Don't forget to let them know your choice of food before hand, as they need to store the food in advance. You will cough up approx Rs 9000 for a two-bedroom houseboat and Rs 11000 for a three-bedroom. Note that this rate will escalate during the peak season -especially during Onam and Nehru Trophy boat race- Aug 2nd week of every year. Book your tickets through KSTDC for a pavillion seat away from the local crowds if you are planning to watch this mega event with thousands of cheering spectators. Carry food,drink and an umbrella as you have to stay there from 10am to 5pm.

Call Sabu (Cell 9446005514) of Goodwill tours for houseboat booking. His experience travelling all around India while he was in army will help to cater the guests' needs-familiar with food choices and conversant in Hindi, Tamil, Malayalam and English.

Once the boat is parked, you can swim in the backwaters or fish using a bamboo pole and a string machine. Set on foot to visit the nearby villages to watch farming, boat building, coir making, toddy (palm beer) tapping and fishing which makes the backwaters so exquisite. Kuttanadu -the region with the lowest altitude in India, and one of the few places in the world where farming is done below sea level- 300ft below MSL. Kainakary, 10km from Alappuzha by road and 45min by boat is a nice place to see the real Kuttanadu life. You may be lucky to see chundan vallam (snake boat) or canoe construction. If you are adventurous with food, try fizzy toddy and KFC(Kappa Fish Curry) from the local toddy shop. Not everyone's taste buds will tolerate the hot and spicy fish curry or 'kappa' (tapioca) at the toddy shop (Rs 60 for a bottle of toddy and Rs 50-100 for dishes). Ask for 'kallu shaap' if you would like to go on this trails. Consider staying awake in the night for a while gazing the galaxy of stars or waking up at 6am to catch a glimpse of the sunrise reflecting in the huge lake.

If you are on a frugal budget or if you think houseboats are too cheesy, there are some alternatives to watch the backwaters at a cheaper cost. Take a public KSRTC boat from the boat jetty next to KSRTC bus station. The boat jetty is hiding inside the Mangalore-tiled ferry opposite to a swanky jewellery shop on the main road to KSRTC bus station. Hop on to any boat that goes to Nedumudi, Kavalam, Champakulam and you are assured a good experience of backwaters at the cost of Rs 10 for more than 2 or 3 hours. Another option is a long 3hour trip to Kottayam crossing Vembanad Lake and coming back by either boat or bus.

Near bus station along the canals, rented canoe boats are available for a non-guided laze through the canals on a small, covered canoe for up to four people for two hours (Rs 600-1000) - this is another way to run through your Sunday tranquil afternoon before boarding the bus or train. I strongly recommend wearing a life-jacket on these canoes as they can topple easily when unfamiliar feet try to balance. Knowing swimming is not essential but is an added advantage.

If you are not staying in the houseboat, consider staying at a home stay near the beach for an early morning beach experience. Alleppey Beach Holidays Home stay (d Rs 750, with AC Rs 1000), Near Collector's Bungalow, Sea View Ward is an excellent option. Call Jose (0477-2241649, Mob: 9447103852) and book your rooms. From this home stay, walk for 5min passing the railway level cross, you are welcomed by the white sanded beach of Alappuzha and get close to the erstwhile sea bridge ruins and the lighthouse. This sea bridge was used for transportation of food supplies from the vessels to the FCI (Food Corporation of India) warehouse and you will find the remains of the rails along the bridge. Checkout if the boating in the lake near the beach is functional and lay your hands on a paddle boat or a rowing boat. Visit Sree Krishna Ayurveda (0477-329728; http://www.krishnayurveda.com/), near Finishing Point, unwind taking one-hour rejuvenation massage for Rs 600.

Train/Bus to Alappuzha: Taking a train or bus directly to Alappuzha is the easiest way to reach there. If not available, take a train or bus to Ernakulam and board a KSRTC bus from bus station to Alappuzha which will take less than two hours. There will be plenty of buses at the bus station heading south on the NH 47. Waiting for a train to Alappuzha from Ernakulam railway station is not recommended. An auto from Ernakulam railway station to bus station will cost you Rs 20.

Environmental issues - pollution from the houseboat motors and biological waste tfrom houseboat toilets hreaten the backwaters and the community life on their banks. Kerala govt. is enforcing a 'Green Palm Certification' for installing solar panels and sanitary tanks for the disposal of waste. If you are eco-conscious, please try to use the manually sculled boats or public boats to visit the backwaters instead of motorized boats.